This year has been a rollercoaster ride for everyone, but life for Real Sociedad hasn’t been better for a long time. Beyond the idyllic setting on the north coast of Spain, in picturesque San Sebastián where Michelin-star restaurants are commonplace, there lies a club on the up.
In the recently-renovated Reale Arena, sat atop of LaLiga, back in Europe after three years away, and with a young and exciting team playing free-flowing, attacking football, times have most certainly changed since Chris Coleman and David Moyes had unconvincing stints in the Basque Country.
Much of that upward trajectory is being driven by coach Imanol Alguacil. Born in a small fishing town just outside San Sebastián, he enjoyed a playing career at the club, but his move into coaching was unexpected. “To be honest, if you’d told me back then that he was going to manage Real, I’d have laughed,” said the man who gave him his debut, John Toshack. “He was very shy. If you asked him an opinion, he’d just shrug. He never said a bloody thing.”
He worked his way up through the youth system, being involved in the first-team set-up as a coach under Moyes, later replacing Eusebio Sacristán as caretaker manager following his dismissal. He enjoyed a spell with the club’s B team, Sanse, as their coach, taking them to the play-offs for Segunda B in 2017/18, only adding to his credentials. Those within the club had no doubts over his commitment, but were clearly not convinced. When he replaced Asier Garitano just months after stepping back from his caretaker role, it was the start of something special.
— Real Sociedad Fútbol (@RealSociedad) October 26, 2020
Now, only club legend Alberto Ormaetxea has a better win percentage in Primera División (47% compared to 44%). For context, Ormaetxea was the man who led the Txuri-urdinak to back-to-back league titles. To this day, they remain the only Primera titles the club has won.
If it weren’t for lockdown, Imanol could already have written his name into the history books. A Copa del Rey final against arch rivals and neighbours Athletic Club was postponed, with both clubs requesting that it be held off until fans can be present. Reflecting the unique connection between a team and its people, it has deprived the 49-year-old of the chance to win the club’s first major title since 1987. For now.
Real Sociedad are flying, there can be no doubt about that, but this is just the beginning. They are one of these sides that are built around their unity as a team, rather than individual stars. In such units, the leader takes up a role of utmost importance and in Mikel Oyarzabal, there are few better captains in LaLiga. At the age of 23, he already leads the way in LaLiga appearances for the club in the squad with more than 200 to his name. Despite not being an out-and-out striker, only Gerard Moreno and Iago Aspas have outscored him amongst his countrymen in the past four years.
It is understandable that such a star has caught the eye, perhaps even more so than last year’s stand-out player, Real Madrid loanee Martin Ødegaard, but Oyarzabal is going nowhere. Loyal to his club, much like his coach, he has always been a La Real man, rejecting the chance to move to the big brother next door, Athletic. “Since he was little, they’ve been after him, but by the age of five he’d already decided it was La Real for him,” explained his former Eibar coach Igor Arriaga.
Primer día completado ✅ Contento de entrenar con el equipo ⚽️ pic.twitter.com/kWOrVe5mBm
— David Silva (@21LVA) September 14, 2020
He’s not the only talented player in the ranks. Many will be familiar to Premier League followers, such as former Manchester City magician David Silva who joined La Real on a free this summer, or ex-Arsenal left-back Nacho Monreal, who has become a regular.
Perhaps the most interesting case of all though is Mikel Merino. Having joined Borussia Dortmund from Osasuna after an exciting breakthrough, he looked destined for the big time. It didn’t quite happen for him in Germany, or in England where he endured a torrid spell at Newcastle. A €12m switch to Real Sociedad has helped him kickstart his career, earning his first cap for Spain in August. He is one of Imanol’s most trusted players, leading the La Real midfield in minutes so far (567), as well as contributing a goal and two assists.
What is at the very core of this side, much like its leader, is a belief in youngsters. The most eye-catching is Alexander Isak, who got his regular first-team chance when Willian José demanded a move away last January. The Swede stepped up, scoring nine goals in six games across just 18 days.
Throughout last season and into this season, young homegrown talent has been key too. The likes of Robin Le Normand, Andoni Gorosabel and Ander Guevara have stepped into the first team unexpectedly and exceeded expectations, particularly in defence, where only three goals have been conceded in seven games to date this campaign. Roberto López is another promising talent who, despite struggling to establish a first-team role, has already scored two goals.
1982 – @RealSociedadEN claimed #LaLiga champions for the second & last time the only season, alongside this campaign, in which they scored 14 goals & conceded three after the first seven games played in the competition (1981/82 season). Dream pic.twitter.com/zo3RMYOZLK
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) October 26, 2020
The ones to really keep an eye out for are two exciting prospects who have both been with Real Sociedad since childhood. Martín Zubimendi, beyond having a fantastic name, has been at the club since the age of 12 and has firmly established himself as the successor to also brilliantly-named former Real Madrid man Asier Illarramendi, who has suffered with injuries.
The other, even more exciting with an even more complicated name, is Ander Barrenetxea who made his debut as a 16-year-old, becoming the second-youngest player ever to do so for La Real. The youngest player in the first team squad by two years and under contract until 2025, his role will continue to grow throughout this season. In a season in which European commitments will bite hard, Imanol will undoubtedly use players like Barrenetxea and former Manchester United prodigy Adnan Januzaj to rest Oyarzabal and Portu.
These players, their talent and their attitude is what forms part of the puzzle, but it’s not the glue that holds it all together. That special ingredient is clear, at least for Imanol. “There is no secret,” he stated after beating Huesca to stay on top of LaLiga. “It’s just about hard work and feeling passion for the team.”
Of the 11 who started as La Real beat Huesca, seven came through the club’s youth system. The number of homegrown players this season is already at 20 after just seven games. Unlike neighbours Athletic Club, they do not enforce a Basque-only policy when signing players, a controversial change which sparked fury in 1989 when John Aldridge became the first foreign player to join the club.
But to this day, their roots in Donostia, the local area they are based in, remain at the very heart of the club. It is that heart which is driving Real Sociedad to their highest league position at this stage of the season since 2002. And this is just the beginning for Alguacil and his team of local talent.